Steroid Era complicates Hall balloting

When judging players from the Steroid Era, voters must develop their own standards, mindful that integrity, sportsmanship and character are among the criteria that we are instructed to use.

Back in May, I wrote that it was wrong to speculate about any player using performance-enhancing drugs without any actual evidence of that use.

That column was about Jose Bautista. It could have been about Jeff Bagwell, though I made no specific mention of him at the time.

I voted for Bagwell for the Hall of Fame this year. Many of my colleagues again will refrain, suspecting that Bagwell used PEDs. Well, mere suspicion is not enough, not if there is any fairness left in this increasingly trying process.

Do I think Bagwell used PEDs? Actually, my opinion doesn’t matter. Bagwell never has admitted to PED use. He never has tested positive to public knowledge. He never has been the subject of a government investigation.

When voting, one should only consider the facts at hand. If Bagwell is later revealed to have been a user, maybe I will stop voting for him, if he isn’t already in the Hall. There is little doubt that he is deserving otherwise, unless you’re somehow unimpressed by his .408 on-base percentage and .540 slugging mark, not to mention his baserunning, defense at first base and leadership of the Astros during his 15-year career.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: When judging players from the Steroid Era, voters must develop their own standards, mindful that integrity, sportsmanship and character are among the criteria that we are instructed to use.

I can’t say my standards are right. I can’t say the standards of others are wrong. The issues are so complex, all you can really do is stay open-minded, trust your instincts and try to make the best decision possible.

I did not vote for Bagwell last year in his first year of eligibility. I tend not to vote for any player from this era on the first ballot, though I have made exceptions before and probably will again.

As I have written before, this is my way of distinguishing, say, Barry Bonds from Hank Aaron, players from a dubious time from the greats of the past. And for those who ask, “What about players thought to be clean?” my response is, “They all were part of a union that had the power to implement change.”

Of course, you can blow holes through that argument, just as you can blow holes through virtually every position that a voting member of the Baseball Writers' Association of America might adopt when it comes to the Hall of Fame and steroids.

I waver, too — waver almost every day on what is proper and correct. I have yet to vote for Mark McGwire, an admitted steroid user, or Rafael Palmeiro, who tested positive. But I’m not sure I’ll hold those positions forever; a player can remain on the ballot a maximum of 15 years as long as he continues to receive 5 percent of the vote.

Recently I spoke with someone in baseball whose opinion I value, someone I greatly respect. I asked him, “What would you do if you were a Hall voter? How would you handle the Steroid Era?” His reply caused me to rethink my position again.

The baseball person said he would vote for players who established their candidacies before baseball initiated mandatory random testing in 2004 (McGwire, Bonds, Roger Clemens, et al) but not players who tested positive under the current system (Palmeiro, Manny Ramirez, et al).

The Steroid Era was a collective failure, the baseball person said, not just of players, but also of agents, GMs and owners, almost everyone in the sport. The users, who had no rules from baseball to govern their behavior, should not be penalized for seeking a competitive edge.

I like the idea of collective responsibility — and writers, too, deserve their share of blame for failing to point out the excesses of the era sooner. Yet, I keep coming back to the non-users, who were at an undeniable disadvantage. That aspect of the era — the users’ willful distortion of a seemingly level playing field — cannot be ignored.

Of course, it’s impossible to sort out who did what, and to what extent. Many of my colleagues, rather than try to calculate the incalculable, dismiss the steroid question entirely and simply vote on players’ numbers. I get their point. I’m tempted to adopt their approach. But to me, it’s a cop-out.

That’s not to say that I know what the answer is; the candidacies of Bonds and Clemens, both of whom become eligible for the Hall next year, will be the most difficult yet. If voters reject most confirmed or suspected users, they will risk eliminating an entire generation of players — a notion that bothers me almost as much as embracing the entire generation without pause.

For now, all I know is one thing: I’m not withholding votes based on hearsay and innuendo.

I voted for Bagwell. Easiest decision in a while.

MY COMPLETE BALLOT

Jeff Bagwell

Barry Larkin

Edgar Martinez

Fred McGriff

Tim Raines

Lee Smith

Alan Trammell

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